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Laos dam ‘elephant in room’

A boat glides along a river where construction workers build a bridge for the Don Sahong hydropower dam site in southern Laos
A boat glides along a river where construction workers build a bridge for the Don Sahong hydropower dam site in southern Laos last year. INTERNATIONAL RIVERS

Laos dam ‘elephant in room’

Conservation groups have called on Prime Minister Hun Sen to address “the elephant in the room” and lobby Laos’ president to postpone his country’s controversial Don Sahong dam project when the leaders meet later this week.

Arriving on Thursday, Laotian Head of State Choummaly Sayasone will spend two days in Phnom Penh on an official visit at the invitation of Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In addition to Hun Sen, Sayasone will meet National Assembly President Heng Samrin and Vice-President Say Chhum.

WWF Greater Mekong director Teak Seng said Hun Sen should seize the opportunity to press for a postponement of the Don Sahong dam, one of 12 hydropower projects currently being planned for the lower stretches of the Mekong, as more studies are conducted about its impact, particularly on fish migration.

“This is the main outstanding issue, the elephant in the room, between Laos and Cambodia,” Seng said.

“This is a great opportunity for Cambodia to put its position forward and request more studies before construction.”

Lying less than 2 kilometres north of the Lao-Cambodian border, the 260-megawatt project could have deleterious effects on shared waterways and fisheries.

Conservation groups also maintain the dam will jeopardise Cambodia’s Irrawaddy Dolphin population.

Following six months of consultations, the four lower Mekong countries – Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos – referred the issue to the Mekong River Commission Council.

Tek Vannara, executive director of NGO Forum, also entreated Cambodia’s government to raise the issue, adding that his group will deliver a joint letter to the government and the Laotian Embassy expressing their concerns.

“We want the president of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to understand and consider our concerns about the severe negative impacts to the lives, livelihoods and health of millions of people,” said Vannara.

Although Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong said he did not know what the leaders would discuss during their meeting, Carl Thayer, a political scientist with the Australian-based University of New South Wales, said Don Sahong was “an obvious agenda item”.

He said that while Cambodia does not have significant bilateral leverage to pressure Laos on their hydropower development, it was important for Hun Sen to apply “person-to-person” pressure on behalf of potentially impacted Cambodians.

“If Hun Sen doesn’t raise the Don Sahong, he would be negligent,” Thayer said.

“It’s too big an issue for Cambodia’s viability for him to ignore, and the opposition would pick up on that if he didn’t.

Thayer said getting Laos to change its mind and postpone Don Sahong would require the international donor community to offer Laos an alternative source of development funding.

“Laos wants to sell electricity to make money to develop . . . so is the donor community willing to step up assistance while we get proper studies of fish migration?”

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